Essays on Technology and Culture

Why Wearable Computing Won’t Go Mainstream

I’ve said it elsewhere on the Internet, but it’s time I codified it in text. The glow will be off the rose of Google Glass, and possibly even the idea of ubiquitous wearable computing, as soon as someone gets hit by a car because they were too busy checking Facebook or Twitter on their HUD. Plenty of people have probably been hit by cars because they were checking their smartphones, but it’s easier to blame the user because they could just keep it in their pocket. When you have an omni-present interruption device in your constant vision, all bets are off.

There’s a key word I want to point out in the above paragraph: “ubiquitous”. Google Glass is the first modern attempt to put wearable computing in the hands of ordinary users. Until now, the wearable computer has been the provenance of übernerds like Steve Mann, or advertising for technology companies. [1] Outside of that world, the closest most of us ever got to a wearable computer was the calculator watch. I’ll skip over the “smartwatch” in this essay, except to note that it’s too early to tell how well the category will catch on.

The problem with Google Glass is that it’s solving the wrong problem. As we live more and more in the digital world, we want more and more to have our data and our tools with us. Now we do, in the smartphone. Smartphones have their flaws: they can get dropped and broken, lost or stolen, and if you’re away from anywhere with cellular reception, it loses half it’s utility. Fortunately, it’s looking like areas without cell phone reception are becoming rarer and rarer. What we need isn’t data in our face. What we need is more reliable and faster access to data, and that will come in time as we develop faster wireless communication and longer-lasting batteries. The only advantage of Google Glass over the smartphone is that it’s less likely to get lost, broken, or stolen off your face.

Though let’s not jump to conclusions. Anyone who looks at Google Glass and brushes it off as a useless piece of technology is missing the point. There’s plenty of applications for wearable computing. I wouldn’t be surprised if down the line, Google Glass, or a derivative technology finds itself strapped to the heads of police officers, the Armed Forces, Air Traffic Controllers, or anyone whose job actually requires having constant access to data. Precious few of us in the normal world, no matter how geeky we are, need to be that in touch. Even IBM’s stock trading guy wouldn’t need to constantly hover over a spreadsheet monitoring prices now. He’s got algorithms to do that for him now.

Some people have compared Google Glass with the Segway. It makes sense: Glass is also a high-priced gadget of questionable utility, lusted after by nerds who won’t be using it for its intended purpose. I think it’s more likely to the next Bluetooth earpiece, a garish symbol of the need to be constantly in touch, accessible, and connected, outside world be damned. For a while, you saw them everywhere, stuck in the ears of high-powered businessmen and schmucks who wanted to seem important, alike. [2] Glass and wearable computing will likely follow the same trajectory: a quick adoption, once prices become affordable, a few years of Glassholes annoying the world, followed by a quick drop off.

  1. I love how dated this IBM ad is. Not only is the HUD basically a desktop spreadsheet app, but it’s being used by a day-trader to buy stocks. Compare that with Google’s ad showing the uses of Glass to see how far we’ve come.  ↩

  2. To map that set of people, you’d use an Euler diagram, not a Venn Diagram.  ↩

Apocalyptic Thinking

Two years ago, you may recall a bit of hubbub from a group of people convinced that the end of the world was at hand, and that it would happen May 21st, 2011. There were enough believers to generate human interest news stories, particularly about the followers of this apocalyptic belief who took it to heart, quit their jobs, sold or gave away their possessions, and went out to spread the message of impending doom. In a way, you can’t blame them. If the world really was going to end, and soon, what’s the point in keeping up the rut? It’s a bit liberating to know that all the things keeping you from doing what you really want to do are going to go away, along with everything else. It frees you from responsibilities.

It seems that there are two ways of dealing with an apocalyptic threat. One is resignation, and one is panic, which can turn into resignation once the adrenaline runs out. I speak in absolutes here, because an apocalypse is an absolute concept. It is the end. Few things in life are truly apocalyptic in scope, but our minds can twist something that is happening, or may happen, into a problem of apocalyptic proportions beyond which there is nothing. At least, nothing worth thinking about. If you’re saying that this is not true, you’re not the sort who views things in the apocalyptic mindset, and perhaps this essay isn’t for you.

Apocalyptic thinking can permeate our lives. Any time something has even the potential to change, drastically, people can—and will—pull the Chicken Little routine, and claim the sky is falling. In the technology world, we see this any time a beloved app or service is bought out. [1] Mac power users scream when the idea of integrating elements of iOS with the Mac is brought up. Certain technology pundits have built a career out of this stuff. Some of this is grounded in reality. If you’re a dedicated user of Astrid, for example, the sky is actually falling. But, it’s not like you can’t actually do anything about it. There’s no shortage of other services and tools we can switch to, including some that aren’t going to just disappear or be abandoned.

That’s the real problem with apocalyptic thinking: it prevents action. As long as you’re stuck in the apocalyptic mindset that it’s the end, and it’s too big for you to deal with… well, it won’t be dealt with. In many cases, once the threat has passed, we can see it for what it is with only a bruise to our ego to mark the damage. So many of our tiny apocalypses aren’t worth the mental stress and strain we give them. It takes a forced shift of perspective to make this clear. Whatever apocalypse is on your radar, whatever you see that will bring the end, chances are it’s not as far out of your control as you think.

  1. Even Marco’s sale of the beloved Instapaper to Betaworks spawned more than a couple frustrated Tweets and App.Net… statuses? We need a better term.  ↩

In Praise of Apps with Learning Curves

There’s a lot to be said for a piece of software that you can just jump right into. Apple’s built half their reputation on software that is intuitive enough that even a toddler understands it. As long as something is easy, works, and has enough features to satisfy 90% of users 100% of the time, it’s typically a good piece of kit. The great bits of kit are like that, but leave room for power users to tweak and configure things so that the application works better. And then, there’s the amazing apps, the ones that you can’t just jump into blindly, that reward the user to take a little time to think and set things up. Those are gamechangers.

Quicksilver, LaunchBar, and Alfred are the first examples that come to mind. Open them up, and they’ll do a fair bit for you, but to get the real value of them, you need to dig into settings menus and preference windows, install plugins and extensions, and tweak them to work exactly the way you think. It’s possible to use a Mac without one of these tools, but once you’ve tried them, you really won’t want to. When setting up both my work iMac, and my new MacBook Pro, the first four apps I installed were, in order: Dropbox, 1Password, LaunchBar, and TextExpander. They’ve become so ingrained into my workflow that to not have them would cripple me. [1]

I started in on this line of thought after an App.Net conversation with Andrew Marvin [2] about the iOS app Drafts. Drafts is where nearly every piece of text I create on an iOS device begins its life, including this very essay you’re reading right now. It’s an exceedingly simple application that is just a text box, and a host of hooks to other apps and services that you can send the text to. Mr. Marvin’s quote after I told him that was: “Why don’t you just put the text where it goes?” In short, Drafts is faster. To add to my spark file in Nebulous Notes, I have to synchronize my entire notes folder, find my sparks file—time consuming, even with Merlin Mann’s “q” trick—and scroll to the bottom to add text. In Drafts, I launch the app, type, and push a button. Done. It’s not something you can do out of the box—it takes a bit of time, patience, and configuration, but the rewards are worth it.

Another iOS app, Launch Center Pro, has a similar reward of investment to time spent configuring it. At first it just looks like a second, smaller, home screen, which may make you ask like Andrew did: “[W]hy would I open an app to launch an app when I can just launch the app?” For me, Launch Center Pro serves as an omnipresent gateway to apps that I want to access quickly, and in certain ways. If I need a password for something, I tap LaunchBar, tap 1Password, and type a search query. Hit go, type my 1Password password, swipe to the right, tap the clipboard icon, and I have my password. It sounds more complex than it is, but it’s also way faster than finding my Utilities app folder, launching 1Password, and finding the search field. On both of these apps, I know I’m just scratching the surface of what they can do. Making these little tweaks is often worth the time. A bit of upfront effort can make life easier down the road. Starting Monday, I’ll have a couple posts on how I use each of these apps.

  1. Imagine typing out my email address every time like an animal.  ↩

  2. Great writer, one-third of Crush On Radio, and a damned handsome man.  ↩

Internet-Enabled Things and Solving the Wrong Problem

There seems to be another fad brewing of Internet-enabling home appliances. This happened before, when the Internet was just starting to become common in homes. The pitch, then, was exactly the same: “imagine if your fridge knew you were low on milk, and it could remind you to pick some up on the way home, or even order milk to be delivered!” Never mind the difficulty of having your fridge tell how much milk is in a container. There's something to be said for unitaskers. Years ago, I caught an episode of The Price is Right from the 70s on cable TV. One of the prizes was a refrigerator with a built in 8-Track player. 1 The first thing I thought was that if the 8-Track player breaks, which they were wont to do, you probably couldn't replace it. A “dumb” refrigerator may not be able to remind you that you need milk, but it is a lot easier to repair when the inevitable happens.

There's two reasons a company tries to wed a new technology to an existing, perfectly good product. One is to spike sales in a saturated market, such as the push for 3D TV a year or two ago, or for Internet-enabled Smart TVs now. 2 The other is because there's some sort of synergistic business partnership that needs to be promoted. 3 In either case, it's not to the benefit of the consumer, but to benefit someone's bottom line and stock price. A third option also exists: to have something to show off at the latest CES so that it doesn't look like the R&D team has been sitting on their butts all year.

Good products are those that solve a problem. Great products are those that solve a problem someone didn't know they had. The best products are those that solve a problem so well that you don't know how you survived without it. The people who promote the “Internet of things” look like they're selling products that solve problems, but really they're just adding complexity that runs the risk of creating new problems. How do you solve that? Replace your $3,700 Internet-enabled Smart Fridge with the latest model, even though it still (hopefully) works as a fridge. Convergence only works when the technologies that converge complement each other. Putting an ice and water dispenser in your refrigerator door works, because you go to your fridge for ice and water. Putting a touchscreen computer that can check email in your refrigerator door does not.

There's some great applications for Internet-enabled home gadgets. If you're a big TV watcher, being able to program your TiVo to record a show from your smartphone away from home is pretty neat. If you like to come home to a properly cooled or heated house, having a Nest thermostat might be worth the time and cost. Those paranoid enough to want a home security system probably would love to be able to arm it from their smartphone. However, I don't see much beyond this in terms of utility. Most people don't want to bother with setting it up, and the geekiest among us will find the limitations of the hardware and software to be more painful and less fulfilling than hacking your own solution. I'm convinced that, in time, most Internet-enabled appliances are going to look more like Honeywell's Kitchen Computer than the actual future of our homes.

  1. In Harvest Gold, too, just in case the 8-Track player wasn't 70s enough for you.

  2. The problem with TV in 2013 is all about content discovery, and the TV manufacturers are going to be unable to solve it any time soon.

  3. Shades of the Motorola ROKR here, but I think Apple only agreed to it to throw people off the scent of the nascent iPhone.

Fame, the Internet, and Personal Boundaries

Yesterday, electronic musician Grimes posted something to her personal Tumblr site. It began “I don’t want to have to compromise my morals in order to make a living.” As a fan, as soon as I heard about it, I rushed to read. One part caught my attention, immediately:

I don’t want to be infantilized because I refuse to be sexualized.

I don’t want to be molested at shows, or on the street by people who perceive me as an object that exists for their personal satisfaction.

I don’t want to live in a world where I’m gonna have to start employing body guards, because this kind of behavior is so commonplace and accepted, and I’m pissed that when I express concern over my own safety it’s often ignored until people see firsthand what happens and then they apologize for not taking me seriously after the fact…

And later:

I’m tired of creeps on message boards discussing whether or not they’d “fuck” me.

To be honest, I’m not surprised at any of the claims she’s making. It’s an unfortunately inevitable effect of how certain groups behave on the Internet. For a woman, especially in a male-dominated public space, the expectations will be that you do certain things, and behave in a certain way. Woe be unto you if you don’t. If you have an open ear, you’ll know this is a topic that comes up with disturbing regularity in the technology world. A great discussion of this came on episode 8 of 5by5’s The Crossover, and for every woman who speaks up about inappropriate behavior from men, there are too many more who keep quiet. I’ve not heard a musician speak out about this harassment until now, but I’m not surprised at all.

I’ll come clean: I first discovered Grimes through 4chan’s music board. [1] This was not long after the album Visions was released, and when her song “Oblivion” and its music video were getting its first wave of traction on the Web. In less than a year, discussion about Grimes on the board went from talk about her music and her videos to her perceived attractiveness, and nothing else. [2] I don’t think it’s a leap to go from expressing that sort of attitude on a message board and projecting it in reality with misbehavior at a concert. It’s a minority of people, but their impact is massive. As the Internet has lowered the barriers of communication between artist and audience, it seems to me that some members of the audience are trying to erode those barriers in other places, to ill effect.

I feel as if we’re going to be seeing a lot more of this as the Internet becomes the primary way for an artist in any form to find an audience. When you combine attention seeking (the good kind) with the lack of social awareness that pervades a lot of Internet culture, and the darker corners in particular, it creates a powderkeg situation. This is different than the phenomenon of “haters.” In any sort of artistic career, haters come as soon as you have a modicum of success, and if you don’t learn how to deal with it early, you won’t have a career to worry about. Now, there’s unprecedented access to artists—you need to be on, 24/7—creating your public image, and addressing the community of true fans. Fame is stressful, ask anyone who’s been given it.

While some of these are problems that will plague any professional artist in the Internet age, we have to return to the issue of gender. Women are forced to put up with more than men in these fields, typically because of entitled men who view women as nothing more than sex objects. This is an old problem, but one that is seeing an unfortunate uptick as communities of like-minded people form, and groupthink pervades. For an idea of what this is like, visit /r/mensrights on Reddit some time. [3] It plays hosts to a bizarre persecution complex that renders feminism and gender equality as a conspiracy to subjugate all men.

The current situation sucks for anyone who isn’t a creepy, obsessive fan. If there’s a way out, it’s to do what Grimes has done. By casting a public spotlight on the unacceptable behavior coming from the community at large, it exposes them. Nobody likes being exposed, and public shaming is typically a good way to shut down people, at least temporarily. It shunts them back into the dark corners, where they belong. An artist should not, and must not change who they are to make the art they want to make. The persona they affect is not an invitation. Behind the fame, the music videos, the albums, and the image, is a human being who deserves respect. The Internet can be used to dehumanize those we don’t like, but it allows the famous to humanize themselves.

  1. No, I will not link you to 4chan.  ↩

  2. Increasingly, most discussions on female artists on 4chan’s music board are focused around an artist’s sexual attractiveness, and not their music.  ↩

  3. I refuse to link there, too.  ↩